Journalism and Impartiality in the Age of Trump

If you are serious about being a journalist of any kind, impartiality is a sacred oath. At the most fundamental level, the job of a journalist is to impart information to the general public. It’s not to provide information through a filter or personal bias, although some kind of filtering is often largely inevitable. Judgements are made on word choice, quote selection, story organization, and headline focus which can subtly twist the meaning of a story, sometimes without the writer even knowing what’s happening. And a filter is obviously a part of analytical pieces, or op-eds, or feature stories. But that’s not the type of journalism in question here. We’re talking about hard news, investigative reporting, on-the-ground action, and the way it gets portrayed back to the public.

Following the election of Donald Trump, there has never been a louder cacophony of voices that seemingly know exactly how journalists should do their jobs. Half of the country blames the media for Trump’s rise; the other half still thinks the media is some kind of liberal machination and conspiracy or, collectively, a wing of the Clinton campaign. Virulent Trump backers want journalists to be hung and suppressed; there is no doubt that that faction exists. “Moderate” conservatives turn to blatantly GOP-oriented outlets for their news. And the largely liberal, largely educated, largely urban bubble of never Trumpers continues to get their news from the sources that have been calling Trump a fascist and a racist for nearly a full year now.

This second group, the liberals outraged by the election, has been flooding Facebook, the comment sections of stories, and my email inbox in recent weeks. They say it is the job of a journalist to refuse to “normalize” the election’s results and the ensuing backlash. They cry out for the importance of “calling racial intimidation for what it is” (as if this wasn’t important before) and using “clear language” to describe acts of hate. This is not suddenly important now. This was important before. Nothing has changed. And the duty to be impartial remains.

It would be emotionally gratifying to editorialize hard news stories. However, as a journalist, an impartial discipline must be the code above all codes. The election of a man who is pretty openly misogynist and racist is not the first bad thing to ever happen to the country, and it’s certainly not the worst thing to ever happen to the country. SNL touched on this point nicely in their first post-election skit. It’s also not the first bad thing that journalists have ever had to cover. The liberal public seems to forget that. It’s as if there haven’t been riots over racial injustice in our nation’s cities for decades now. It’s as if suddenly the balance of power has shifted to evil in the universe. But it hasn’t, at least not yet. Every day I report on murder, assault, rape, armed robbery, and all manner of hateful acts. That existed on November 8, and it existed just the same on November 9, too. Yes, there seems to be a wave of election-related criminality. Yes, it is horribly unjust for minorities and women to fear for their safety in any way. But there are waves of insert-topic-here-related criminality every week. This element has always existed in our society. The fact that it is more present in the public’s eye today than it was 2 weeks ago does not suddenly change the duty of the journalist. It does not alter the code of impartiality.

And why is the code so important? Because the general public – both sides of the division – are right about one thing: the media is at a crossroads. In a time when distrust of the media has never been higher, it is the responsibility of honest journalists to tell the exact, precise, undiluted, uneditorialized truth, without fanfare, without unnecessary adjectives, and without the injection of personal frustrations and emotion. If there’s an anti-Trump rally, it’s truth should be told; if there’s a pro-Trump rally with just as large of a turnout, that fact should not be ignored. If there is violence against women and minorities, that should be covered aggressively; if a student is afraid to come to his college class because the professor and the entire class think he’s a racist for supporting Trump, that should be covered aggressively too. There is nothing brave about condemning bigotry if you’re not willing to look your own prejudices in the eye and own them. And then grow from them. Because there is no doubt about it: everyone has prejudices, however different they may be.

If a journalist’s job is more important in November 2016 than it ever was before, it’s because of his potential to build bridges, not to slant information to the satisfaction of his base, as if he himself were nothing but just another candidate, lost in the eternal hunt for Facebook likes.

<<<Image via Gage Skidmore

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